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New Worlds: Bringing Up Baby

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There are lots of ways to raise children, but some of them produce very bad results.

I’m not talking about the message peddled by modern parenting magazines, websites, and books, which would have you believe that raising a child is such a delicate process that one wrong step in kindergarten can doom your kid to years of therapy later in life. I mean that experiments both deliberate and accidental have shown that there are some fundamental requirements wired into us on a biological level, and if those requirements are not met, the damage is extremely real.

For a stretch of time around the early twentieth century, some leading Western psychologists believed that too much contact with infants stunted their development, and that the “love” of a baby for its mother was based on nothing more than the need for sustenance. The work of Harry Harlow on the isolation of rhesus macaques — which is now considered deeply unethical, and disturbed some of his fellow researchers even at the time; if you go looking for details, be warned — showed how profoundly untrue this was. Among other things, he placed infant monkeys in cages with two figures, one of wire and one of cloth. Despite the fact that only the “wire mother” dispensed milk, the monkeys preferentially spent their time clinging to the “cloth mother,” going to the other one only to feed . . . and they also came out deeply disturbed, with not only their social but their cognitive and physical development stunted by the lack of physical contact with other monkeys.

It’s not just monkeys. The Romanian orphanage crisis in the 1970s and 1980s inadvertently proved much the same point: that without loving contact (beatings don’t count), children will lag in their mental development and be far more susceptible to physical ailments. The phrase “failure to thrive” refers to a child who is underweight and/or not growing properly, and it can happen in infants who are given sufficient food but not sufficient touch. Their bodies simply don’t absorb the nutrients they way they should. Meanwhile, their brains don’t receive sufficient stimulation, and they don’t learn how to relate to other people. Sometimes these problems can be reversed in later development . . . but sometimes they can’t.

Avoiding this isn’t rocket science. Babies and small children simply need someone they can reliably look to for safety and support: a person who will not only feed and wash them, but touch them and respond when they’re in distress. Attachment theory (not to be confused with attachment therapy, a highly controversial form of treatment that may do more damage than good) emphasizes that this should ideally be a single person — but it doesn’t have to be the baby’s biological mother, or even a woman, or even an adult, and other theorists have critiqued the Western-centric assumption of a single primary caregiver. Heck, in the absence of appropriate care, babies will reach out to each other, or to animals (especially social ones like dogs), in search of the contact they need. Stability is important, though; passing the kid constantly to new people tears away the sense that there’s any reliable source of comfort.

Even after those first, most fragile years are past, the way kids are raised can have enormous consequences, for good and for ill. On the negative end, the agoge, the system used for raising Spartan citizen-class sons, was virtually identical to the methods used for indoctrinating child soldiers today. Boys were taken away from their families at age seven and raised in an environment of food deprivation and beatings from the older boys, with trainees graduating to being the ones inflicting the beatings as they aged. For the “best” among them, this culminated in the state-approved murder of slaves, via the tradition of the krypteia.

If you think this doesn’t sound like it would produce a very nice man, well, you’re not wrong — and although the harshness of it is pretty unusual for a socially-sanctioned practice (as opposed to something like child soldier indoctrination), it has milder parallels in things like the English boarding schools of the nineteenth century. Raise your sons this way, and you wind up with a lot of guys ill-equipped to express any emotion but anger or solve their problems with anything other than violence.

Depending on your society, though, you might consider that a feature rather than a bug. After all, if you idolize warriors, then raising men who will murder each other over an insult sounds just fine. And of course, all of this is subject to other pressures, too. Families struggling to get by in a world of subsistence agriculture can’t always spare a lot of time and attention for comforting a wailing baby; their priority has to be on getting food into that baby’s mouth. (As concerns go, “failure to thrive” takes a back seat to “actual starvation.”) So as with some of the factors I mentioned when discussing mental illness and disability, quite a lot of history and its violence might stand in part on a foundation of different child-rearing practices.

But that doesn’t mean the only alternatives to our current (Western) standards are bad ones. Back in the 1960s, Jean Briggs studied traditional Inuit child-rearing methods, which are about as far from the Spartan agoge as you can get. In a land where you might spend the entire winter cooped up in a tiny igloo with the rest of your family, venting your anger through violence is a good way to ensure nobody survives until spring. And in fact, the adult Inuit Briggs worked with had a remarkable capacity to manage their anger and frustration without so much as raising their voices: to them, shouting or lashing out are markers of childish, immature behavior.

Their child-rearing methods (which activists are working hard to keep alive) involve teaching their offpsring through storytelling and play-acting. Instead of snapping at children to keep away from danger or to behave politely, they tell frightening stories about the monsters that will eat them if they go too near the sea or take food without asking first. If the child is hitting someone, they wait until a quiet moment and then play out a drama to show that isn’t nice: a mother might calmly say, “Ow, that hurts! Why would you hit me — don’t you like me anymore?” Over the years, this patient work teaches children empathy and self-control . . . traits that will literally be survival skills for the harsh environment they live in.

Whether characters in a story raise their children well or poorly is often going to reflect the author’s own experience of such matters. But it’s also a subtle tool for creating the social conditions for the behavior you want to showcase, whether that’s equanimity in the face of trouble or a hair-trigger tendency toward violence.

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds: Bringing Up Baby”

  1. A bit of bright news is that the extent to which the agoge even happened is a matter of current debate (see “Spartan Mirage”), because the more detailed descriptions of it come from Roman authors, and by the time they were writing Sparta was, in a number of ways, a theme park or re-enactment village of itself. The central premise is that Sparta actively crafted its own image as an undefeatable martial society for its own reasons, and attributed its successes to a way of life that other poleis couldn’t hope to emulate (although some did try). It’s certainly the case that Spartan exposure of weak infants seems to be a story without significant grounding.

    So, on the one hand, essentialist propaganda goes back a long way. On the other hand, Spartan children probably had a reasonably happy and comfortable upbringing by classical Greek standards, which honestly were probably pretty decent.

    1. Hmm — what I’ve seen questioned is the number of children who died in the agoge (which gets reported as super-high), not the existence of it in the first place. Or rather, I am unconvinced by what arguments I’ve seen against its existence, since they seem to amount to “surely nobody would actually do that,” with no evidence beyond modern sentiment backing them up; meanwhile, what we see of Spartan society and the way it behaves is consistent with putting your ruling class through an upbringing like the agoge. But if you have sources with more grounded arguments and evidence, I’d be happy to read them!

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